What to Do When Work Stress (Literally) Makes You Sick

Stress Sick

Alyson was 35 when she had a stroke.

The ambitious attorney awoke one morning unable to move, the left side of her body paralyzed. She was due in court later that day, so before calling for help, she reached for her phone and dialed her assistant.

The stroke was the match in the powder barrel. For days, Alyson had ignored the warning signs, including ringing in her ears, visual impairments, and exhaustion. Her doctors had trouble pinpointing the source of her stroke — after all, the vast majority occur in those over 65 — but they all offered their best guess: stress.

It’s certainly no secret that a high-pressure job can cause inordinate amounts of anxiety and tension, which can manifest themselves in myriad physical ways. Studies show that our brain and body have trouble distinguishing between the kind of stress caused by real danger (our house is on fire) and perceived danger (a boss with too many demands).

In response, they release hormones and chemicals to speed up our heart rate, increase blood pressure and stimulate our muscles. We become more alert and responsive, which is appropriate when we’re in harm’s way. But our bodies can’t sustain that level of readiness for long periods of time. After a while, they begin to break down. That can result in anything from chronic headaches to nausea and insomnia or more serious physical disorders, including heart attacks, hypertension, and, of course, stroke.

So if we find ourselves in the kind of job that is resulting in a hit to our health, we must take intentional steps to better our body and mind.

Identify the source

If you’ve been suffering from a steady stream of stress-induced sickness, it can be difficult to pinpoint the source. Perhaps you’ve recently been tossing and turning at night or you’ve been fighting off regular migraines, and you can’t determine why.

Jen, a client of mine who works in academia, used to experience nausea and frequent vomiting on her commute. Her body was sending messages and warning signs, but she was misinterpreting them — as many people do. (We eventually pinpointed — and solved — the problem. More on that later.)

To help identify yours, consider carrying around a small journal or set of index cards. At the onset of your physical symptoms, write down what’s happening to you and around you. Were you writing an email to a difficult client? Were you preparing for a meeting with your boss? What was your train of thought at that time? Do this repeatedly, for at least three to five days, and then observe any perceivable patterns.

Often, our discomfort can’t be attributed to a specific source; it is simply a result of a career mismatch. Such was the case when I was working a grueling pharmaceutical sales job. My flu-like aches and tense muscles led me to book regular massages, which were also painful experiences. It wasn’t a person or project causing this — it was the job itself. But it took a process of elimination for me to realize that.

Ease the pain

What will make you feel better greatly depends on what’s (literally) ailing you, but here are three good places to start:

Work your body and mind. Researchers have often touted the ability of exercise to improve our response to stress. Working out acts as a stress test run for our physiological systems, according to the American Physiological Association. They communicate to each other, as they do when we’re anxious, becoming more efficient in the process. Meditation is another common stress-reduction technique, allowing us to improve mindfulness and objectivity. Consider trying this 10-minute, conflict-resolution meditation. Your employer may even offer ample opportunities for you to relieve stress through physical and mental activity. Studies show that many companies are investing in wellness programs to combat the cost of illness, especially the stress-induced kind. Do your research, and take advantage.

Set boundaries that serve you. I used to check my email before my feet even hit the ground in the morning. If I had received a disparaging message, it set the tone for my whole day. So I decided to make a rule for myself: No emails before breakfast. Take inventory of your own stress touch points, and set boundaries that feel right to you. Try removing your phone from your bedroom entirely, which can take away the temptation to check in early or late and allows melatonin to work its magic. (The light emitted from your cell phone, often called “blue light” suppresses melatonin and stimulates your brain as if it were daytime.) The National Sleep Foundation recommends no screen time one hour before bed.

Give voice to your thoughts. In my talks with clients who are experiencing significant work stress, I’ve noted that often times, an honest conversation with a boss or colleague can provide immense relief. Jen, the client who used to be nauseous on her commute, pinpointed the reason for her stress: a leader who wasn’t inclined to lead. She and her coworkers banded together and, with respect and clarity, presented their case to human resources for why this person should no longer be their supervisor. Human resources made the necessary changes, including placing that person in a non-managerial role, and now Jen loves going to work.

Is it time to leave?

If stress at work is causing you real, physical pain, and you feel strongly it will continue despite your best efforts, it might be time to go.

I’ve watched many clients seesaw when it comes time to make this decision, especially as it relates to walking away from a high-paying job. So I often run them through this very simple pro/con exercise: Make a list of all of the things work “gives” you, i.e. paycheck, benefits, status, but also headaches, insomnia, panic attacks, etc. Then analyze to determine if the health costs outweigh the benefits.

If the answer is yes, walk away. If the answer is no, remind yourself that staying in a job is a choice, despite its drawbacks, and there’s power in that, too.

Ironically, it wasn’t Alyson’s stroke that allowed her to reflect on what work was doing to her. The law firm let her go — an unwanted but exceptional event that gave her time to examine how work played a role in her stroke and what kind of job might help her avoid that kind of stress in the future. After an extensive rehabilitation, she’s able to walk again, is self-employed with her own law practice and bakes gluten-free breads to sell around town in her spare time.

Don’t wait to awake paralyzed before reevaluating what your job is costing you. You are the architect of your career and your life. Own it.


Regan Walsh is an NYU-certified Executive and Life Coach who helps seasoned and emerging leaders thrive in work and life. She’s worked with successful clients from New York to Portland and proudly calls Columbus, Ohio, home. For more information, visit www.reganwalsh.com.

SOURCE:     https://hbr.org

IMAGE CREDITS:      http://www.chiropractickenosha.com

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